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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Cook Weber

Women in Oslo

This wonderful statue was outside our Oslo hotel, and it encapsulates my experience there.

"Women in Oslo,” begins with a man, Sigurd Øgaard. Sigurd is now organist at the Cathedral in Bergen, Norway. We became friends during the brief time he worked in Houston. He returned to his home country, Norway, to accept his current position, and before so doing, married and stole away our “best and favorite” Houston soprano, Laurie Robertson. This action put a strain on our friendship, to say the least. :-)

It turns out that Sigurd was reading Choircrawl and sent me a message on the very day that we decided we could not go to Latvia and Lithuania. In desperation, I mentioned to him that Norway looked like a good replacement for the Baltics. Could he give me any ideas regarding wonderful choirs in Oslo? In a flash, Sigurd sent me a long email with a treasure trove of names, email addresses, and web links, and in a delightful, and almost certainly inadvertent, twist, all of the names suggested were female. Sigurd's recommendations formed the basis for my Oslo itinerary, which has been wonderful. Sigurd, our friendship, rent asunder when you stole Laurie away from Houston, is now repaired...almost.

Sigurd Øgaard and Laurie Robertson

Det Norske Solistkor; Grete Pedersen, director

I had a chance to reconnect with Det Norske Solistkor, led by the legendary Grete Pedersen. My husband and I heard them earlier in concert in Lund, Sweden, as you may recall. Their home turf is Oslo, however, and I was privileged to sit in on two of their rehearsals, which gave me a very different perspective on this fabulous professional choir. The Solistkor is rehearsing with reduced numbers due to "illness.” Whether that illness was due to Covid, the common cold, or extreme caution I never did ask. Apparently, the absent singers attended the rehearsal virtually, watching via Zoom. (Sound familiar?) They normally use 17 singers; 12 singers were present on Monday, and 15 were present on Tuesday.

Monday's rehearsal was the first for a concert on Friday. (It was out of town, or I would have been there!) There were about 20 new pieces spread out on a table for singers to grab as they entered the room, a fairly small space adjacent to a church. Grete told me that, while a student, she lived in that building as caretaker. One of her assignments was cleaning toilets.

Grete Pedersen managing logistics...just like the rest of us.

It seemed apparent that the singers had not been asked to prepare in advance. On the first read, there were many mistakes in exactly the places one would expect. They read on text from the beginning — none of that neutral syllable stuff. The difference between the world where most of us live and Grete’s ensemble, however, was that on the second read, it was almost perfect. I realize that Grete probably didn’t think it was "almost perfect," but the rest of us most certainly would have been happy to take that second version to the stage.

Tuesday's rehearsal was in the church. In that beautiful space the sound could bloom, and the singers seemed more comfortable vocally. Grete really drilled intonation, particularly on a Renaissance motet. At one point she said something along the lines of, "If you're going to miss a pitch and make a mistake, well, OK, but if you just continue to get close, it's sloppy. Not OK." Please note that we mortals would have been satisfied with the sloppy version. Throughout, the piano was used only to give initial pitches.

The programming is something I want to emulate — creative and unbound to the traditional chronology and genre of most American choral concerts. Friday’s concert featured collaborations between the choir, a Norwegian folk singer, and a percussionist. The Solistkor also performed selected movements of Bach’s Jesu meine Freude interspersed with arrangements of Norwegian folk tunes. There will be something for everyone — in the very best sense of that phrase.

The Schola Cantorum at Norges Musikkhøgskole

Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl, director

Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl was the next Oslonian (I made that up.) female choral conductor I encountered. She works with a volunteer, 30-voice chamber choir at the music academy that is comprised almost entirely of non music majors. They rehearse three hours once a week in a musicology lecture room. Everyone arrives early to move desks out of the way and to set up chairs. After singing two beautiful arrangements by Ørhan Matre, they dove into a really big challenge — an extended work for choir and big band on texts by Ibsen. (Another nudge that I need to think more creatively when programming.) This big band piece is difficult and challenging, but Tone is a master teacher, and her singers are a disciplined and motivated bunch. They worked steadily and methodically throughout the evening, and I'm sorry that I won't get to hear this work when it comes together. The piano was used only to give initial pitches.

Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl and Schola Cantorum

Undergraduate Conducting Students from the Norges Musikkhøgskole

Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl, instructor

Tone also teaches undergraduate conducting at the Academy, and I was lucky to get to observe one of their activities, which was in yet another beautiful church. Four student conductors conducted a very good 16-voice choir. I could only stay for an hour of this exercise, but it appeared that each conductor led an unaccompanied Duruflé motet and a movement from the Duruflé Requiem with organ accompaniment. After a two-hour run-through, there was a break, followed by a concert. It was clear that these students had enjoyed excellent instruction from Tone, and I like the entire format. (Note to self: Steal this idea!)

The next generation

Kammerkoret NOVA; Julia Selina Blank, director.

My third female-led choir was Kammerkoret NOVA. Their current director is Julia Selina Blank. Julia studied with Grete Pedersen and was one of the three finalists at the Eric Ericson Conducting Competition in Stockholm. I was eager to watch her work.

Kammerkoret NOVA is also a volunteer group of, typically, about 30 singers. Their numbers, too, are also down a bit because of Covid. They rehearse at an elementary school. When we arrived, everything was dark and empty with the exception of a teacher who appeared to be trying to express her dismay to a parent who was late picking up their child. (Some things are universal.)

The choir came dashing in at about five minutes before rehearsal, including Julia, who arrived on a bicycle with helmet and poncho. She bounded into the room with energy and a huge smile that never disappeared. (Note to self: Smile more!) The choir began slinging chairs around to set up the room. This was clearly not their first rodeo, and the downbeat was on the dot. Impressive.

Like choirs all over the world, Kammerkoret NOVA was preparing for a fast-approaching concert — its first in 18 months. They were ecstatic to be together singing again, and their affection for each other and for singing was palpable.

They worked on very complex, difficult repertoire, which they clearly loved. Some of the repertoire seemed too difficult for these singers, however. How many times have I heard colleagues say, “That choir has no business singing that piece; it’s too difficult.” I’ve come to the conclusion that selecting repertoire is somewhat akin to pumping iron, not that I ever do that. If you stick to the five-pound weights, will you ever be able to lift ten? At any rate, these singers are so smart and so motivated, they may very well pull off that repertoire. I regret that I won’t be there to hear them do so!

Julia Selina Blank

Uranienborg Vokalensmble; Elisabeth Holte, director

Next, I was privileged to observe the Uranienborg Vokalensemble rehearse Tomás Luis de Victoria’s beautiful Requiem, a piece I didn’t know. After hearing three weeks of mostly contemporary repertoire, it was wonderful to hear this beautiful Renaissance music in a perfect acoustic. Before rehearsal, I chatted with director Elisabeth Holte about the difficulties of returning to singing at a high level after 18 months of Covid-hiatus. There's not much to say except that it's a hard process, even when ameliorated by everyone's excitement at returning.

Elisabeth led a thorough, knowledgeable warm-up, but throughout, the choir was singing a bit under pitch. Once they moved into the repertoire, the same problem persisted. Elisabeth adjusted vowels, changed placement, and used her gesture to lift the pitch center. She was unrelenting, and, over time, the pitch rose and began to "live" right in the pocket. (Note to self: Be more unrelenting. Yes, I can hear my Houston singers saying, “Oh NO!”) Gosh, the music was beautiful; Victoria was far ahead of his time, and it shows more in this extended Requiem than in his more familiar smaller motets.

One of the tenors slipped out of rehearsal to bring out coffee and pastries for the break. He stood expectantly ready for "customers," but Elisabeth was oblivious. The singers' body language indicated that they, too, were ready for a pause, but not Elisabeth. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on and said something (in Norwegian) along the lines of, "OK, let's do this one more time." The singers sagged, but they did as she asked. Finally, she said (I think),"Let's take a break." Hooray!

Elisabeth Holte and the Uranienborg Vokalensemble

Oslo Domkor; Vivianne Sydnes, director

Finally, my time in Oslo concluded with a brief visit to the Cathedral Choir‘s rehearsal of the Bach B Minor Mass, which will be performed Sunday. They were joined by a beautiful group of early music players; pitch was at A415. Their conductor, Vivianne Sydnes, was marvelous, and the choir was spectacular — seemingly all pro. Interestingly, for the SSATB choruses, Vivianne used 5-5-5-4-10. On paper, there was an under-balance of tenors and an over-balance of basses (like Royal Holloway), but, aurally, it was an ideal sound.

Vivianne Sydnes and the Oslo Cathedral Choir and Orchestra

Old title: ”The Scream” by Oslo resident, Edvard Munch.

New title: “Head Explodes with New Ideas.”

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07 พ.ย. 2564

What a fantastic group of choirs and conductors you were able to observe! Talk about a "save" after you had to cancel the Baltics—just excellent!

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